Saturday, May 26, 2012


Five-year-old twins Rithu and Rishika share more than parents and identical features. Both were diagnosed with blood cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy in Coimbatore. While coping with body sores and severe mouth ulcers, they often prayed for fairies who could grant the wish closest to their hearts—to be princesses for a day!

And the fairies did come, in the guise of 20-year-olds who brought pink gossamer gowns and shiny crowns, motivation enough for the duo to rise from bed! For the team from Bhojan Atews, playing wishmakers to terminally ill children is only the latest project hatched between engineering classes. They use their laptops as teaching aids in rural schools, logon to Facebook to mobilize donations and hang out on weekends at orphanages convincing wide-eyed kids to wear underwear. For members of this voluntary youth organisation, college life is as different as it gets!

At Anbagam orphanage near Tiruchi, Bhojan’s core team, Mowshimkka Renganathan, Shankar Ganesh, ShanthiniMuthuswamy, Abhilash Ronuru, Aarthi Kumar and Dheeraj Murramshetti, are busy doing what they do best. The neatly groomed kids greet us politely. “The first day we came here, most of them were indifferent to what we had to say. Today they welcome people warmly and introduce themselves smartly,” says Mowshimkka, the architect of the barely two-year-old organisation.

Though the core team are all students from SASTRA university, Thanjavur, Bhojan now has volunteers and coordinators from colleges across the state. Mowshimkka convinced Shanthini to start the organization in September 2010 with the idea of reaching out to underprivileged kids, without the limitations of an institution-run society. “I wanted to do something for kids, particularly medical assistance due to personal reasons. Our first act was mobilising funds for surgery of a child with eye cancer,” recollects Mowshimkka. The name of the society, registered in January this year, triggers questions. “We were fascinated by Greek mythology and to make the name catchy thought of Atews, an amalgamation of Athena and Zeus,” Shanthini smiles, adding that ‘Bhojan’ signifies service. In keeping with the mythological line of thought, the logo is a phoenix, representing resurgence.

Stepping ahead

Frequent interactions with kids in orphanages and slums prompted Mowshimkka and team to do their bit in bridging the gap between rural and urban kids with their ‘One Step Ahead’ project.

“Education sadly does not teach you what life demands. Our classes included fundamental spoken and written English, basic word processing and computer skills, first aid, performing CPR, socially responsible acts and etiquette,” explains Shankar. “We introduced them to concept of saving money and simple banking procedures with the help of comics available in the Reserve Bank of India website.”

The team has scheduled regular weekend classes in four centres including Anbagam and three rural schools. “We have seen Class X students opting for ITI instead of pursuing higher education,” says Mowshimkka. “They may remain welders for the rest of their lives due to lack of awareness. Starting this June, we will be bringing professionals to interact with children and introduce them to various career options.”

Out of the box

Bhojan’s most unconventional project, Newknickers, which distributes underwear to kids in orphanages, initially evoked much skepticism and even ridicule, but Mowshimkka stood her ground. “We noticed kids complaining of rashes and soon discovered that one no one donates to orphanages is underwear.”

“Why underwear, is the question everyone shoots,” says Abhilash, who has taken the project under his wing. “Even the orphanages we approach indicate we pitch in soaps, stationery along with underwear.” Newknickers has reached Pondicherry, Salem, Kumbakonam and Coimbatore. Impressed by Mowshimkka’s idea at a recent conference in Coimbatore, garment owners from Tirupur have come forward to donate free knickers.

Convincing the children to wear them is the tough part. “It took us half an hour to make one kid accept the garment,” Aarthi recalls. “We make it a point not to just hand over the clothes but ask them questions to drive home the importance of hygiene.”

Making wishes come true

Though Newknickers offered varying experiences, the ‘Wish fairy’ project, which fulfills wishes of children with HIV-AIDS, brain tumour and cancer, is dear to many, including Shanthini. “I always used to think I was not gifted enough. After meeting these kids, the first thing I did was apologize to my parents for all my ranting,” she says, her voice growing emotional. “What a beautiful life I have! I’ve been the happiest since I became a part of Bhojan. I discovered my life’s purpose.”

Volunteers and donors can choose to grant wishes of any ailing kid. Short profiles of the children are posted on the website. “This project has helped volunteers connect on a personal level with kids,” says Mowshimkka. “There may be no cure for some diseases but it does not stop us from keeping those affected happy.” Often wishes are as simple as crystal anklets, colour pencils, digital watches and bicycles.

A different birthday

Pocket money and kind souls are not the only sources of funds for these projects. Bhojan kickstarted a long-term fund-raiser idea, ‘A different birthday’, to urge collegians to donate half the money they spend on birthday treats. “Birthdays are the best time to tap into people’s generosity. Everyone wants to do something special,” grins Dheeraj, backed with proof that the idea has worked. There are birthday pledges on the organisation’s Facebook page and website. “It is our responsibility to make good the pledges by contacting sponsors a week ahead of the birthday. We remind them this too is a treat for someone else,” he says.

The young brood has used social networking and web portals to send newsletters, post photos and update blogs to ensure transparency. Sponsors receive photos of kids or cards made by them as a thank-you gesture.

Way ahead

The core team are keen to continue the initiative after college, banking heavily on the virtual world to collaborate. Mowshimkka confidently reassures me Bhojan is her full-time passion. Friends eager to take the initiative to their home-towns, have fuelled expansion plans.

But it is emotionally rewarding experiences that have made volunteers stay on with the organisation, renewing hope like the phoenix in the logo. Dheeraj puts it simply. “Even when you get 100 percent in mathematics, you cannot get the satisfaction you feel when a kid comes up to and says thank you.”

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